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NIPPONIA No.33 June 15, 2005

Special Feature*
Friends to Depend on When Disaster Strikes
Human lives hang in the balance when an earthquake, tsunami, typhoon or other natural disaster strikes. Lives are also claimed by accidents, fires and other human-caused calamities. A disaster can strike at any time, anywhere in the world. Victims need people who can rescue them without a moment's delay. This article looks at two groups in Japan that are prepared to travel to disaster sites in other parts of the world to join rescue efforts there.
Written by Takahashi Koki, Photos by Saimon Fujio and Sakai Nobuhiko
Other photo credits: Tokyo Fire Department

Sakata Sadatoshi is in charge of the 60-member Dai-ni Shobo Homen Honbu (2nd Disaster Response HQ) Hyper Rescue Team. He has 28 years experience rescuing disaster victims and training people in rescue techniques.
Getting to the disaster site — Every second counts
The Hyper Rescue Teams
The tremblor that rocked the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture in October 2004 buried a car with a woman and her two small children inside. Hyper Rescue quickly mobilized, and saved one of the children, a 2-year-old boy, 92 hours after the landslide.
October 2004. A strong earthquake shook central Niigata Prefecture, about 200 km north of Tokyo. Soil and boulders hurtled down on a car driving through a river valley. The car was buried with two children and their mother inside, and when part of the car was first discovered three days later it was impossible to know if they were still alive. Because of the aftershocks, more rocks might have fallen on the car and rescuers at any moment. But the Hyper Rescue Team of the Tokyo Fire Department managed to remove some of the boulders and found a two-year old boy alive in the car. He was pulled to safety a full four days after the earthquake.
Hyper Rescue Teams were formed in 1996, the year after the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake rocked the Kobe region. The teams' job is to rescue people and provide first aid to victims immediately after a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. They go anywhere in Japan on the order of the Tokyo Fire Department Fire Chief. They are also sent overseas after a major disaster, as a special unit of the International Rescue Team, Japanese Fire-Service (IRT-JF). They were dispatched in 1997 to Indonesia to help after the outbreak of forest fires, in 1999 to Columbia, Turkey and Taiwan after major earthquakes, in 2003 to Algeria after an earthquake, and in 2004 to Morocco after an earthquake and to Sumatra after huge tsunamis caused by an offshore earthquake.
The teams, stationed in Tokyo, consist of three units, each with 20 members. All have completed a challenging training program that has made them into an expert rescue force. One member says, "There's no special exam to qualify for Hyper Rescue. First, candidates take special rescue training for about 40 days. It's a rigorous program, and only those who do really well get to join a rescue squad and wear the distinctive orange jumpsuit. And only the best of them are finally chosen for Hyper Rescue. So the few candidates who succeed are really thrilled to have done so."
Team members do not sit on their hands, waiting for an emergency — there is always a team on shift duty. A shift lasts for 24 hours, so each team is on once every three days. During the shift they learn how to operate and keep in running order a backhoe, a bulldozer, a crane, and a fire-fighting vehicle equipped with a foam and dry chemical extinguishing system. Another piece of equipment, for which Hyper Rescue is known, is Sirius. This device emits electromagnetic waves to detect heartbeats and other signs of life under rock and rubble. Sirius helped them locate the young boy trapped in his mother's car, after the earthquake in the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture.
Once they are called up and sent to a disaster scene, team members may have to make do with rations such as hard biscuits, and sleep in a vehicle or tent. But there are no complaints. They are glad to go anywhere someone needs rescuing — that is their job, and they take pride in doing it.


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